News & Opinion

Clock ticks as Houston drives to keep Tour

The PGA Tour exudes financial health when judged by the $363 million in prize money up for grabs this season, plus another $35 million or so in playoff bonus cash.

Yet, three tournaments – the Houston Open, Fort Worth Invitational and The National – lack sponsorship for the first time. All could be gone from the Tour when the 2019 schedule is announced in mid-May during the Players Championship.

Energy giant Shell Oil (Houston), upscale grocer Dean and DeLuca (Fort Worth) and mortgage lender Quicken Loans (National) no longer sponsor the tournaments, leaving each event to scramble for a solution.

Next week, the 71st Houston Open will be played under the shadow of dim prospects for the future of one of the Tour’s longest-running tournaments.

In June 2016, Houston Open officials learned from Shell, which is based in Houston and had sponsored its hometown Tour event since 1992, that the 2017 tournament would be the company’s final title-sponsorship. In the ensuing 22 months, tournament director Steve Timms and the PGA Tour have been seeking a sponsor, but with no luck.

Timms said that he met with the Tour’s business-development group and they discussed “potential prospects, both companies that we knew or companies that the Tour had relationships with or had been talking to about their potential interest in being a title. And from that point on, we just started sharing information and trying to get appointments.”

The sponsorship landscape has shifted on the PGA Tour since Shell became a title sponsor in 1992.

Timms ticked off some of the reasons why companies decline to invest: It doesn't fit our brand profile. . . . We're not consumers of network television advertising. . . . It's not that we don't see the value; it's just that we don't buy advertising on the networks.

“So much of this platform is the fact that it's global,” Timms said, “so when you put the filter on prospects, it tends to be global brands, brands that do advertise on television, brands that our demographic, the PGA Tour audience, are very important for them to reach. It's a very meaningful audience, obviously. I mean, look at the companies that are sponsors. So not really one thing. We haven't found that exact combination just yet.”

The bigger issue for Houston, should the nation’s fourth-largest city not host a PGA Tour event next year for the first time since 1948, is the effect on golf in the region.

Indirectly, through the Houston Golf Association, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) which Timms heads as president and chief executive, the Houston Open supports a variety of golf initiatives. In 488 elementary schools, students in kindergarten through fifth grade are exposed to golf via a physical-education curriculum called the First Tee National School Program. In 50 after-school programs, the HGA teams with the YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs and other youth-service organizations to spread the game. The HGA also works with 10 green-grass facilities in a more traditional golf setting.

All told, the HGA annually reaches 350,000 youngsters, all of whom are potential golfers.

Under the HGA’s “Municipal Golf Initiative,” the organization operates two city courses: F.M. Law Park, a nine-holer with a driving range dedicated to The First Tee and other juniors, and Gus Wortham Park, which was built in 1908 as the original Houston Country Club. With help from $7.5 million raised by the HGA, Gus Wortham Park has undergone extensive renovations to the course and practice range and is scheduled to reopen this summer.

The HGA also seeks to take control of golf operations at Memorial Park from the city of Houston. The course is steeped in history. Memorial Park, a 1936 John Bredemus design, played host to the Houston Open in 1947 and 1951-63. Jimmy Demaret, a three-time Masters champion, learned the game at Memorial Park and later became its head professional.

Memorial Park is located within the Interstate 610 loop, just west of downtown Houston, making it a prime location for the Houston Open, which Timms said is part of the long-term plan for the tournament, if a new title sponsor can be found.

“It's actually in the middle of a 1,500-acre park,” Timms said. “If you can imagine Central Park with a championship golf course in the middle of it, that's what Memorial Park is. So, we need to have the operations of the golf course under our umbrella before we can contemplate moving, because it is going to take some investment, but we think it's viable. The Tour has been down and looked at it. They're very impressed with it, the potential it has, so that's part of it. And whenever you're selling a product like we are this tournament, you kind of have to come in with some freshness to it, some new ideas. So, it's what's new for a brand or a company to put their brand on it, and that could be part of it.”

The Houston Open’s tournament bloodlines include a winners’ list full of World Golf Hall of Fame members: Byron Nelson, Bobby Locke, Cary Middlecoff, Jack Burke Jr., Bob Charles, Roberto De Vicenzo, Arnold Palmer, Gene Littler, Gary Player, Curtis Strange, David Graham, Raymond Floyd, Payne Stewart, Vijah Singh, Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson among them.

The fact that the Houston Open will be played next week without a sponsor doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Hilton Head and others have bounced back from similar predicaments, but Houston’s situation hardly is ideal.

Yet, as the PGA Tour finalizes its schedule for the 2018-19 season, some 350,000 young golfers will be among the many Houstonians watching closely.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli